Sundance Review: ‘Before Midnight’ is One of the Best Movies of the Year
In 1995, Before Sunrise followed the single night in Vienna between two young tourists, the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy), who fell in love and vowed to reunite in six months. But they didn’t meet again until 2004, in Before Sunset, in which a chance encounter in Paris had the pair catching up and reflecting on what it was like to now be full adults. Before Midnight finds them in the present day, and a lot has changed. Unlike the first two films, this isn’t about a chance encounter. Jesse and Celine got together after Sunset, and now they live in Paris with their twin girls. The story has them on vacation in Greece. While they are happy together, a conflict simmers over Jesse’s desire to move the family to the US in order to be closer to his son, who spends most of each year with Jesse’s ex-wife. Eventually, arguing over this one problem exposes other resentments and issues in their relationship, and it escalates to an increasingly unpleasant degree.
But that’s not really the plot, or the point. Like the first two films, this one is more concerned with talk. Lots and lots of talk. Jesse and Celine talk about work, parenthood, history, one another, their friends, love, and much more. For the first time, though, other people get in on the conversational action, with several of the couple’s friends participating in some of the discussions. This is still essentially a two-man show, though. No other director can make people talking as interesting as Richard Linklater can. Even something that seems insufferable on paper, like Jesse discussing his ideas for his next novel, come to vibrant life when Hawke and company get to deliver the words.
The dialogue has a remarkable quality of being equal parts real and unreal. The subjects, the emotions in them, and the way that the characters talk about them all feel authentic, but the characters speak in a semi-stylized fashion. Often, movies that try the realistic approach will have the actors inject awkward pauses and inarticulate phrases into their delivery. There’s a place for that, but too often, it makes things boring instead of relatable. But Before Midnight, while all talk, is never, ever boring. Stylistically, Linklater goes for a neutral approach, using very long takes with quietly lovely cinematography to show what’s going on.
What really sells all this to the audience is the bond between Celine and Jesse. From their opening scene together, Delpy and Hawke instantly remind the audience why they’ve been rooting for the two to be together since Sunrise. Not only are the actors reviving the incredible chemistry they created in those first two films, but they’ve built on that chemistry. While at first they were new, unfamiliar lovers, and then they were reconnecting old flames, now they’re a seasoned couple. The way Delpy and Hawke work off one another is utterly delightful. They’re warm and playful, with just the right nip of good-natured sarcasm. Too many romance movies forget to invest the viewer in their central relationships, and as a result, no one cares whether the characters get together or stay together or whatever. The key to this emotional connection is in small moments – not grand, melodramatic gestures.
This movie is all about the small moments, and it means that a pretty standard fight between Jesse and Celine (albeit an extremely heated one) is more upsetting to see than any overblown conflict from a standard Hollywood rom com. The movie is also about middle age, and how people grapple with it. Both Jesse and Celine are contemplating these crossroads in their lives, and how they choose to deal with it is at the crux of their argument. Each installment in the Before series has matured alongside its filmmakers and characters, and Midnight is no exception, carrying a philosophical weight that feels more informed than either of its predecessors. I’m sure that the next film will make this one look a little less wise in retrospect, in turn.
And I hope there’s a next film. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke stumbled onto something special when they decided to do these sequels. The trio has created a sort of fiction counterpart to the Up series, that string of documentary films which revisits the same group of children every seven years. I want them to keep at it. Nine years from now, there should be a Before Midday or whatever, and nine years after that, another installment, again and again, until one or both of the main characters are dead. With each new film, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke find some wonderfully brilliant new way to say something about life and love. Before Midnight isn’t just the best fiction film I saw at Sundance – it will undoubtedly stand as one of the best movies I see this year.